Senate Intel Report: Key Officials Excluded From 2016 Election Response

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner , left, and Chairman Richard Burr

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner , left, and Chairman Richard Burr Andrew Harnik/AP

Committee leaders recommend an integrated response to cyber events and disregard for political affiliations moving forward.

Senior Obama administration officials responding to reports elements tied to the Russian government had made cyber intrusions into the Democratic National Committee sought to delay and restrict the dissemination of the information, even from the White House Cybersecurity Coordinator, according to interviews conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In a report out today detailing the government’s response to Russia’s campaign to interfere with the 2016 election, the committee found “the decision to limit and delay information sharing about the foreign influence threat inadvertently constrained the Obama Administration’s ability to respond.”

The report is the third in a series of five planned to dissect Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, including disinformation campaigns conducted via social media, phishing attacks on key party officials, and cyber intrusions into voting systems. It makes a number of recommendations based on lessons learned from those events, and was accompanied by an optimistic view of prospects for November’s contest.

“Thankfully, as we approach the 2020 presidential election we are in a better position to identify foreign interference efforts and address vulnerabilities Russia and other hostile foreign actors may seek to exploit,” Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a press release announcing the report. “We must continue building on the lessons of 2016, including making sure we have strong response options at the ready. I hope this Committee’s bipartisan report will help further the public’s understanding of the threats we face and the current Administration’s ability to respond to them.” 

According to the report, despite public warnings in May by the Director of National Intelligence of cyber intrusions into presidential campaigns, and media reports in June about Russian activities trying to penetrate the Democratic party, administration officials didn’t start seriously engaging until certain undisclosed details were shared by the intelligence community at an undisclosed time.  

A briefing was subsequently arranged for President Obama with CIA Director John Brennan who advised against sharing the information broadly. Brennan was then dispatched in “early August” to start informing the “gang of eight”—a select group of top lawmakers—in one-on-one briefings that “did not involve formal recordkeeping,” according to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who submitted a minority response included in the report.  

Brennan’s admonition that the intelligence be closely held was enforced within the administration by then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice who convened “small group” principal committee meetings on the topic.

And as the report states, “Several NSC officials who would normally be included in discussions of importance, such as the NSC Senior Director for Russia, the Senior Director for Intelligence Programs, and the White House Cybersecurity Coordinator were neither included in the discussions nor exposed to the sensitive intelligence until after the election.”

President Trump has received bipartisan criticism for eliminating the White House cybersecurity coordinator role.

Senior Obama administration officials cited two main reasons for keeping the intelligence from being shared, including with state election officials, and for not taking punitive actions against Russia in advance of election day. 

One was a lack of confidence in attributing the attacks to Russia, a common challenge, according to Michael Daniel, the cybersecurity coordinator at the time.

The committee said Daniel told them “conflicting cultures at member agencies of the IC commonly result in delays in the release of attribution statements, particularly with respect to ascribing the confidence level with which a statement can be made.” 

Senior Obama officials were also afraid of causing the very disruptions Russia was looking to create and of any perception they would be seen as “rigging” the election, as then-candidate Trump was intimating. 

“In the fall, the Obama administration responded with several warnings to Moscow but tempered its response over concerns about appearing to act politically on behalf of one candidate, undermining public confidence in the election, and provoking additional Russian actions,” the report states.

Among the committee’s recommendations: “The President of the United States should take steps to separate himself or herself from political considerations when handling issues related to foreign influence operations. These steps should include explicitly putting aside politics when addressing the American people on election threats and marshalling all the resources of the U.S. Government to effectively confront the threat.”

Other recommendations include taking an integrated response to cyber events that incorporates geopolitical considerations while viewing cyber as an essential part of the foreign policy landscape, and increased information sharing on foreign influence efforts, both within government and publicly.

But Wyden’s response calls into question the integrity of the committee’s report, noting the secrecy surrounding the gang-of-eight meetings and a lack of access to relevant investigative materials by most committee staff. 

“In this report, the Committee recommends that information about foreign influence campaigns be shared as broadly as possible,” he wrote. “It is bizarre that the Committee would not heed its own recommendation and grant access to this information to its own staff, thereby remedying some of the very concerns I have identified in these views.”